Reviewing the review

Published: Tuesday 28 February 1995

THE Review Committee on the Sardar Sarovar Project, instead of taking a principled stand and rejecting the extremely limited frame of reference set by the government, produced a report that was indicted by the Supreme Court in January for being "vague" and "ambiguous". The convenor of the committee, Planning Commission member Jayant Patil, resigned.

The committee submitted its report without a single field visit. Had it bothered to visit some rehabilitation sites in Gujarat, it would have found that in Parveta, the babies born in 1988-89 died probably because they could not cope with the new conditions. Moreover, the present drainage patterns could lead to increased waterlogging and salinity, which would cost Rs 22 crore to rectify.

Although it breathlessly questions some of the many official claims about the dam's technical viability and philanthropy, nothing is explicit. Instead, the report resorts to the last defence of all bureaucrats: it argues that the project can succeed if the authorities can get their act together.

In striking and shameful contrast, the criticisms of the Bradford Morse Committee, appointed by the World Bank in 1991, which had a similarly limited mandate, broadened its own scope, defining its own terms of reference.

The executive in its usual blinkered way has failed to provide any progressive interventions. It has been left to the judiciary to demand a more comprehensive and meaningful analysis of the project.

The opponents of large river valley projects do not now merely grouch. They have alternatives which must at least be considered. Experts suggest the need for a new approach to farm management in these areas; they suggest an integration of irrigated high-input agriculture and rainfed cultivation, leading to a new system of regenerative sustainable farming. A major emphasis is on local, community managed water harvesting systems; canals can recharge aquifers and fill up many surface storage systems.

To meet the country's growing energy requirements, experts suggest the need to shift from increasing society's energy consumption with help from mega projects to a new paradigm that focuses on energy demand management and low-cost decentralised options on the supply side.

The Review Committee merely passed the suggestions by on the plea that they were beyond its purview. In fact, when it came to the crunch, the radical rhetoric of alternative development strategies long espoused by several of its members in their individual capacities has conveniently been forgotten.

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